Like its parent company, General Electric’s Current division sure has changed since it set up shop in Boston more than two years ago.
Here comes the biggest change yet. GE is selling Current to a new owner: American Industrial Partners, a private equity firm in New York. The sale, to be completed in early 2019, is one of the most tangible local impacts from GE’s steady stream of divestitures, initiated last year under former CEO John Flannery and continued under new chief Larry Culp.
GE hatched Current to combine high-tech lighting with certain energy businesses such as storage and solar. The company picked Boston for its home in large part because of the innovation culture here, several months before its corporate headquarters decision, and put former GE Lighting chief Maryrose Sylvester in charge.
Current opened up in a WeWork space near South Station in early 2016, right around the time Boston won GE’s HQ sweepstakes. (Unlike with the parent company’s move from Connecticut, Current didn’t get any public subsidies.) A few dozen people were working there in fairly short order. The long-term plan called for as many as 200 local employees — a team that would eventually move across the Fort Point Channel to join their colleagues in corporate.
So much for that plan. Current won’t be part of the new GE headquarters now. Under pressure to resuscitate GE’s beaten-down stock price, Flannery decided to sell the division and several others, including the famed consumer lighting business, the one with roots in Thomas Edison’s time at the company.
GE didn’t disclose a sale price for Current.
Meanwhile, no buyer has been identified yet for the North American consumer lighting operation.
The clean-tech sector had celebrated the news of Current’s arrival in 2016, perhaps more than the corporate HQ. Maybe this would be the big-name anchor that the local industry needed, or at least desired. But GE would later separate Current’s energy businesses from lighting. Now, Current makes and sells commercial and industrial lighting systems, along with related sensors and software. It employs about 50 at its Boston office, out of about 2,500 people in total, and plans to continue to use the GE brand after the sale.
No significant job cuts are expected, a spokesman said, and the Boston crew remains intact under Sylvester’s leadership. But Current jobs were expected to help fill the new corporate headquarters, and the spin-off is another reason GE might not need the full campus it once envisioned on the South Boston side of the channel. (GE currently employs about 235 people at its temporary Fort Point headquarters, with plans to move into a brick building nearby next year.)
The news of Current’s sale, of course, comes amid another high-stakes headquarters competition: the quest for Amazon HQ2. The latest reports suggest two winners could tie for the prize: front-runner Arlington, Va., and Queens, N.Y., a dark horse. That would be an ending that almost no one could have expected.
And so it often goes with economic development. Executives and politicians set their eyes on one particular corporate vision. But the business climate in which they operate can change quickly, often dictating a different outcome.Jon Chesto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.